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What is food sovereignty?

Take the Flour Back | 27.04.2012 07:49 | Bio-technology | Ecology | Social Struggles

Our current political system chooses to deal with world hunger through the model of “food security”, arguing that there is not enough food to go around and that we need techno-fixes to solve this. This approach ignores the fact that there is a global food surplus – many people just can’t afford to buy food. This problem is being amplified by land grabs- communities that used to grow food for themselves are being forced out of their ancestral homes, often by corporations expanding cash crop production.

We already produce more than enough food to feed nine billion people – two billion more than the current global population. (1)

The industrial food system throws away (in the journey from farms to traders, food processors and supermarkets), between a third and a half of all the food that it produces – enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over. (2)

Free trade policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund make it much harder for governments to protect small and family farmers from big multinationals. With the expansion of free-market capitalism, agricultural systems in many countries in the global south have become focused on producing cash crops for export to rich western nations. At the same time, their markets have been opened to food imports, including imports from US and EU companies at less than the cost of production. US farmers benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies which make up as much as 40% of US net farm income. This means they can afford to export their crops at well below production cost. (3) This is ruining the livelihoods of small farmers in the global south.

This has also led to greater corporate control of food production. As small and family farmers struggle to compete in the global market, they become vulnerable to pressure from multinationals who market expensive pesticides and patented GM seeds as a solution, arguing that they need GM and agrochemicals to increase yields. And because they are struggling, farmers are switching to growing cash crops for export, making communities dependent on food imports where once they grew that food themselves.

The industrial food system is also responsible for the eviction of millions of smallholders from their land. (4) Multinational corporations grab the land to create huge monoculture plantations.
High input farming and agrochemicals are no solution. Pesticides are poisoning farm workers, fertilisers pollute our water, and biodiversity is being destroyed by monocultures.

Genetic Modification is simply the logical extension of an increasingly discredited industrial system. The use of herbicides is creating hyper-resistant superweeds. Similarly, as pests become resistant to toxic pesticides, more and more chemicals need to be used. High inputs and a lack of diversity reduce soil fertility, making farmers yet more dependent on the chemicals sold by agribusiness. Patents on GM seed, and the use of hybrid seed means that farmers cannot save their seed to use the next year, increasing costs and further eroding both farmers independence, and the choices of future generations. The rich diversity of local seed varieties, adapted over hundreds of years to local climate and soil conditions, is being lost.

The UN’s expert panel on Agriculture published the worlds most authoritative report into the future of farming in 2008. It concluded that small scale agro-ecology was providing the most effective and efficient solutions to hunger and did not recommend GM.

Corporate agribusiness is legally required to prioritise the generation of profit above all else. It’s increasing control over the food system has led us away from sustainable food production. Those at the sharp end of the food system believe its expansion won’t lead to a redistribution of wealth – only hand more power and control over to rich corporations.

*Food sovereignty*

Peasant farmers across the world are developing their own forms of sustainable farming. Food sovereignty means taking power away from wealthy elites and restoring it to local communities. It means communities reclaiming control over their land, deciding what to grow and how to grow it.

La Via Campesina is an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium-sized farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. In 1996 they coined the term “food sovereignty” to describe a peasant-based, sustainable, agro-ecological model of farming. (5)

Food sovereignty was defined at the Forum for Food Sovereignty held in Nyéléni, Mali, in February 2007, as:

“…the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and users.

Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.”
- Nyéléni Declaration (6)

*The principles of food sovereignty*

As defined in the Nyéléni 2007 synthesis report, (7) food sovereignty:

1. Focuses on Food for People: Food sovereignty puts the right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for all individuals, peoples and communities, including those who are hungry, under occupation, in conflict zones and marginalised, at the centre of food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries policies; and rejects the proposition that food is just another commodity or component for international agribusiness.

2. Values Food Providers: Food sovereignty values and supports the contributions, and respects the rights, of women and men, peasants and small scale family farmers, pastoralists, artisanal fisherfolk, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples and agricultural and fisheries workers, including migrants, who cultivate, grow, harvest and process food; and rejects those policies, actions and programmes that undervalue them, threaten their livelihoods and eliminate them.

3. Localises food systems: Food sovereignty brings food providers and consumers closer together; puts providers and consumers at the centre of decision-making on food issues; protects food providers from the dumping of food and food aid in local markets; protects consumers from poor quality and unhealthy food, inappropriate food aid and food tainted with genetically modified organisms; and rejects governance structures, agreements and practices that depend on and promote unsustainable and inequitable international trade and give power to remote and unaccountable corporations.

4. Puts Control Locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations on local food providers and respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally sustainable ways which conserve diversity; it recognizes that local territories often cross geopolitical borders and ensures the right of local communities to inhabit and use their territories; it promotes positive interaction between food providers in different regions and territories and from different sectors that helps resolve internal conflicts or conflicts with local and national authorities; and rejects the privatisation of natural resources through laws, commercial contracts and intellectual property rights regimes.

5. Builds Knowledge and Skills: Food sovereignty builds on the skills and local knowledge of food providers and their local organisations that conserve, develop and manage localised food production and harvesting systems, developing appropriate research systems to support this and passing on this wisdom to future generations; and rejects technologies that undermine, threaten or contaminate these, e.g. genetic engineering.

6. Works with Nature: Food sovereignty uses the contributions of nature in diverse, low external input agroecological production and harvesting methods that maximise the contribution of ecosystems and improve resilience and adaptation, especially in the face of climate change; it seeks to “heal the planet so that the planet may heal us”; and rejects methods that harm beneficial ecosystem functions, that depend on energy intensive monocultures and livestock factories, destructive fishing practices and other industrialised production methods, which damage the environment and contribute to global warming.

“We will fight against the corporate control of the food chain by reclaiming control over our territories, production, markets and the ways we use food.” (8)


1. War On Want, ‘Food sovereignty: Reclaiming the global food system’, October 2011:

2. Tristam Stuart, ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, London: Penguin, 2009

3 & 4. War On Want, ‘Food sovereignty: Reclaiming the global food system’, October 2011:

5. La Via Campesina, Friends of the Earth International and Combat Monsanto, ‘Combatting Monsanto: Grassroots resistance to the corporate power of agribusiness in the era of the ‘green economy’ and a changing climate’, March 2012,

6. Nyéléni Declaration, Forum for Food Sovereignty, Mali, Feb 2007, available at:

7 & 8. Nyéléni Synthesis Report, Forum for Food Sovereignty, Mali, Feb 2007, available at:

For further information:

BBC News, ‘Dying from hunger in food-exporting Argentina’, April 2011,

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  1. Hang commodity speculators — Grow your own